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Jun 16 / Simon

The house where art lives

In an old school annexe in South London, a dance studio has become a hotbed of cross-arts creativity. Simon Tait explored

The building at 85 St George’s Road behind the Imperial War Museum in Southwark looks like a Dr Who transformation of a much loved old pile into a whimsical monster, with its ribbed sky blue roof emerging from the familiar dirty yellow London brick.

In a way it is. In 2005 the Charlotte Sharman school annexe was transformed in an award-winning piece of architectural sleight of hand by Sarah Wigglesworth to become the Siobhan Davies Studios, less a building than a crucible in which dance and other artforms are made alongside, and influencing, eachother.

Siobhan Davies – Sue – is our leading contemporary choreographer who for almost 40 years and to international acclaim has been exploring dance and choreography and how they are experienced, particularly at Sadler’s Wells and through site orientated work (most recently at the Victoria Miro Gallery). She was awarded the CBE in 2002.

She is still exploring, and now based her own studios. “Initially we wanted a place where contemporary dancers should feel honoured, a place that fitted their purpose, and then from that security they can build up other energies, and the strength to feel valued as an independent artist” she says.

“But my second thought was that I don’t want just a home, I want far more – a secure place from which to become brave and rattle its walls with new ideas and information, testing the work that takes place in this building.”

And that requires getting information from other artforms, which for Sue began with Sarah Wigglesworth in devising the building within a building. That conversation lasted at least four years before the concept they contrived together was finished at Christmas 2005. Sue became absorbed in every aspect of the making of the building, she learnt about structural engineering and the craft the plasterer who use danimal hair as a binding agent in the traditional way.

The first feature of the building is the light which seems to fill every corner. Dotted through the three floors are pieces of ceramic and glass art by students from the Royal College of Art as part of its current contemporary exhibition. On the top floor, the theatre company Punchdrunk are in raucous rehearsal whose noise somehow doesn’t pervade downwards.

Sue Davies is perched in her tiny office pecking at Melba toast with a spread which she calls a sandwich: at nearly 60 she is impossibly lithe. On this ground floor is a curiously silent flurry of activity because Siobhan Davies, to distinguish the company from its leader, has a lot on.

The company has created a dance, Differences, for the Ledbury Poetry Festival in July, a collaboration that came after Sue had rediscovered poetry a year ago, and subsequent conversations with leading poets like David Harsent, Alice Oswald and Don Paterson. They confirmed that the art forms have much more in common than differences. Paterson told her “Each of the arts is tempered by its sister arts”, and that became a key. “If we don’t recognise eachother’s work and learn from it we’re losing out, and the audience is losing out and may forget to take information from one artform to another. We can ask the audience to make the horizontal leap”.

The glass and ceramics, Out of Practice, is an assignment for MA students who, after Sue had made the link with the tutors, were told to go to the building where their work would be seen and be inspired by either it or the activities within it. “These artists have brought such a wit, as well as beautifully made objects” she says.

It will be followed next month by 60/40, in which a textiles maker, a furniture maker and a potter will produce work also inspired by the studios’ ecology, and in which they will explore the blurred line between craft and art – Sue says the right word for both kinds of exponents is “maker”.

Then there is Big Dance, the London-wide festival devised to encourage children to, if not go perform them, to find interest in dance. The studios have become the south London hub, and Davies’s team is working with 270 schoolchildren. “Not everybody wants to dance, and if we trigger the right response there are other ways of intriguing them – they could be writing about dance, photographing it, filming it, and you begin to open up doorways not only to what dance is about but how we all learn and explore the world through movement”.

And they are working on a project, called Rotor, which will be performed in the autumn. Sue has created “a tightly structured compact dance” and invited a composer, a ceramicist, a playwright, a poet, a visual artist and a filmmaker to see it and accept a challenge to work from it.

“The whole project is complex. Each of he artists has rotated their work out of the dance using their particular mediums. The building will have eight artists’ responses placed throughout, each brought into being by observing the dance”. What it will not be is a jumble of different artforms somehow trying to interlace with eachother: each will be a separate event with the audience taking their own path through each one.”

Sue Davies isn’t currently making dance for theatre. In 2001 she made a piece which contained theatrical elements which was performed in Victoria Miro’s art gallery, and last year when she was given the opportunity to be in that space again, she made the work differently and specifically choreographed for an art gallery.

“With theatre, there’s a chasm between the audience and the performance” she says. “I am incredibly intrigued by the detail of observing an audience’s response to a live dancer close up.”

Buildings have a way of creating a their own impression which can influence the perception of the art, which is not fair on the art or the audience.

Dance, she says, can be so much more than it is recognised to be, both on its own terms and alongside other artforms. “The combination of thinking and physically doing is what makes this is a distinct artform. Choreography can exist just as well without a dancer, and the glorious thing is that when a choreographic practice on its own terms joins up with an articulate and knowledgeable dancer, you get two engines working together to make something with which an audience can connect.”